When it comes to watching telly, there’s a lot to be said for the collective viewing experience. The laughter of a friend can make your favourite sitcom that little bit more amusing, the gasp of a loved one can elevate the week’s must-watch drama into something all the more exciting, and, of course, who can resist joining in with family members as you play along with the latest quiz show?
And so the new BBC Together service, which was announced yesterday, will come as welcome news to those who have found their viewing habits changed by the ongoing lockdown. Similar to existing services like Netflix Party, the feature allows viewers to watch their favourite shows at the same time as family and friends – no matter where in the country they might be located.
As things stand, BBC Together is still in the Research and Development stage, with senior R&D producer Dr Libby Miller saying, “we’ll be monitoring how well it works and thinking about how we could change it in the future, but we’re looking forward to seeing and hearing about the creative ways that people use it and getting their feedback on Taster.”
So, eager to find out how successful the experiment was we decided to give the new function a go. I contacted a couple of friends situated elsewhere in the UK to be my guinea pigs, we started a video call and we tried it out – here’s how it went…
How easy is BBC Together to get set up?
Good news: it couldn’t be easier!
You need to select one member of your party as the host viewer – I served this role during our experiment – who will be responsible for the bulk of the set up. This viewer chooses a programme (after consulting with friends of course) to watch or listen to on iPlayer, BBC Sounds or BBC Bitesize and then heads to the BBC Together website to paste the URL of the chosen programme into the clearly marked space.
From there, the host viewer will get a new link which they can copy and send to their friends via email or a messaging app (you’ll be asked by the site to make sure your friends are happy to receive this link). Those friends simply need to click that link and then they’re in – they should now see the same screen as the host viewer.
This sets it apart from other services such as Netflix Party – for which each individual participant needs to have enabled a browser extension. There’s no need for any of that here, as soon as you’ve clicked the link sent to you by the host viewer you’re in, which should make it easier for those such as elder relatives who might not be as comfortable with technology.
So if you take away the time at the start of our call spent chatting and catching up, it took less than a couple of minutes between choosing a programme to watch (we opted for an episode of Limmy’s Homemade Show) and beginning our viewing.
Did we encounter any technical difficulties while watching?
We did – although they were relatively minor and easily rectified. Within the first couple minutes of watching, we noticed that there was a slight echo, but this disappeared as soon as we all put on headphones – so I would recommend that those wishing to try out the service have these easily at hand.
Another issue that relates less to BBC Together itself but can still have an effect on the overall experience is choosing which video messaging service to use alongside. We decided to switch from Facebook Messenger to Zoom early on, as this allowed us to view the video alongside the programme – ensuring we had the added benefit of watching each other’s reactions. (That said, it’s worth pointing out that Zoom’s 40-minute limit for group calls means that if your watching a programme longer than that length you’ll have to start a new call half way through – which could add a bit of unnecessary faff.)
I should also add that my experiment included only three participants – there is a slight chance that those watching in larger groups might encounter other problems, but I have to say based on our experience I can’t imagine that being the case.
Beyond that, once we’d sorted out the echo issue and selected our preferred video app, we ran into no further problems; the video quality was excellent, there was no buffering and we all laughed at the same points!
Does BBC Together add to the viewing experience?
On balance I would say that it absolutely does. My previous experience of group watchalongs had consisted of one member screen-sharing on Zoom – which led to far reduced quality and was something of a hassle.
But watching a good bit of telly while being able to share reactions with close friends is definitely a worthwhile experience, and while it might not be exactly the same as watching in the same room it was a pretty good recreation of that experience.
One possible improvement would be the introduction of a chat room feature – which is available on Netflix Party – to make it that little bit easier for friends and family to discuss the show without talking over dialogue, while allowing other members of the watch party to have control over the pause function could also help.
Afterwards, I asked my friends who had joined in with the call for their thoughts to see if they agreed.
The first participant said, “It was overall an enjoyable experience – good video quality which synced well with my pals. Interesting to compare to similar tech such as Netflix Party which I have used in the past. The two services certainly run as smoothly as each other and have quick and easy set up.
“Netflix Party requires that all wishing to stream together have the extension installed on Google Chrome but has the added benefits of a text chat room and the ability for all participants to pause whatever is being watched.
“BBC Together does not need additional software but can only be controlled by the host. Based on my interactions thus far I would be happy to recommend both to any one wishing to watch shows with friends or family.”
While the other added, “It works way better than I expected, and in combination with a video calling app like Zoom, is about as close to watching a show round your mate’s house as you are going to get in the foreseeable future.”
I would go along with these recommendations – BBC Together is a welcome addition to the broadcaster’s service and I can certainly see it being a success in these challenging times.
Find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide.